Thoughts on Spider-Man Games

Spider-Man has had an interesting history in the game world.  Some games challenged player preconceptions, some challenged developers’ code, and most were outright fun—though there has been a stinker or two.  Today we’re going to talk about the web-head and the games of his we’ve played.

I was watching the trailer for Spider-Man: Edge of Time, and I have to admit it—I was excited.  I’m a huge Spider-Fan, with Miguel being my all-time favorite version of the web-slinger.  After playing a bit of Shattered Dimensions at a friend’s house and watching a Let’s Play of it (though I can’t seem to find the one I’d watched, now), I found the game play to be too strict, too “on rails”, and the story to be—well, let’s just say “abysmal” and leave it at that.

Then I saw the trailer for Edge of Time, which seems to use the same engine as Shattered Dimensions (which makes sense, really), but what really got me hooked was that Peter David—a very prolific writer of pretty much fiction, period, regardless of the medium—was at least partly behind the story.  To say I adore Peter David would be a severe understatement, so though needless to say, perhaps, I’ll say it anyway—I was cautiously hopeful about Edge of Time.

That’s not what I wanted to discuss today, however, especially since this is a “retro-ish” gaming blog and Edge of Time isn’t even out yet.  That game did, however, make me think of Spider-Man’s gaming history in general.

The first Spider-Man video game would be the simply-titled Spider-Man for the Atari 2600.  As you can see here the game play was simplistic—you climbed a building and if you dodged enemies and the Green Goblin, you climbed another one.  Second verse, same as the first; little bit louder and a whole lot worse.

The first Spider-Man game I can recall playing as a youngster is Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six.  I played this game a lot.  It actually wasn’t that great of a game, but I was young enough to play any game with Spider-Man’s face on it (which is almost true of me to this day, I admit—but only almost), so I spent many hours playing it.

There’s one level that’s completely black—and I don’t mean that “fake dark” thing where everything’s blue, or you can see silhouettes or the like.  No—completely, totally, utterly black.  You were supposed to go somewhere else and get some night-vision goggles, but it got to the point where I didn’t need them.  I knew the layout of the level and where every enemy would be to the point of being able to do it without them—effectively blind.

Interestingly, the full game play (it’s not a Let’s Play, really) can be found on YouTube, here and here.

The second Spider-Man game I can recall playing is Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage for the Sega Genesis.  This was an insanely hard game.  It was also based on the comic plot arc of the same name, which I actually rather enjoyed.  An interesting Let’s Play is here, for the curious.

You could play as either Venom or Spider-Man, which tickled me pink as a young person, since I adored Venom to no end (and still think he would be a great foil for Peter if he were ever handled right).  It was a typical side-scrolling beat-’em-up, but what made it interesting was, again, playing as either Venom or Spider-Man.

After completing some levels you had the option of which character to continue the game with.  Some levels were specific to one or the other, so they were missed if you went with the other, while others were the same with the only difference being the character you chose being in the “lead”—for example, in one level when the two are working together to obtain a weapon to use against Carnage and his posse, whomever you didn’t pick will head off to go do their own thing.

It was a fair game for what it was, and as a young Spider-Fan I absolutely adored it.  I beat it first as Venom then fought through it again to beat it as Spider-Man to see if there was a different ending (there wasn’t), and while it was definitely hard as heck I enjoyed every frustrating moment of it.

The next Spider-Man game I can recall playing was Spider-Man for the PlayStation.  It also came out on the Nintendo 64, but I didn’t have that system at the time and didn’t want it for that system anyway.  They cut down the story a good bit to make the game data fit the cartridge.

Anyway, I couldn’t have enjoyed that game more.  It was a linear game, of course, as every Spider-Man game had been, but there was a bit more freedom to just swing around and look at things.  Not a lot more, but more than expected.  It was the first three-dimensional Spidey game, and you can tell that developer Neversoft Entertainment gave it their best.  The story was actually interesting (and one of the few that gave a good “reason” for the fog covering the lower part of the city, keeping you to the rooftops), the graphics decent enough for the time, and the levels were designed to let you have a bit of leeway in how you wanted to complete missions.

Its sequel, Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro, wasn’t all that great, really.  Vicarious Visions developed this one, and I don’t think they’ve ever had a title all to themselves.  I believe at least the vast majority of what they’ve done are sequels like here, or ports.

The story was alright.  Nothing terrible but nothing great, either.  Some of the levels were copied and pasted from the first game, though with obvious aesthetic differences.  There was also the limit of not being able to go to the ground, but that was a code limit.  There really wasn’t an in-game explanation for it, though.  That aside, the two main things I liked were the alternate costumes and the Instant Action arena-training-thing.

The first game had alternate costumes, too, and they gave you different powers.  The Spidey 2099 costume gave you enhanced strength, the symbiote costume gave unlimited webbing, and so on.  What Enter Electro did with it was let you mix and match costumes and powers—you could assign any three powers you’ve unlocked to any costume you’ve unlocked.  Being a bigger fan of Spidey 2099, I loved being able to assign powers to that costume.

What I loved more than that was Instant Action.  Basically, through cameos from a few X-People and their Danger Room, you could train in the basics—movement, webbing, and so on.  Instant Action was what it sounds like—you got shunted into the Danger Room with re-spawning enemies and you spent as much time as you wanted just kicking thugs’ butts.  No plot, no costumes, nothing but you, the green-ish grid, a few health and web pick-ups, and thugs.  That was it.  That was far more enjoyable than perhaps may be expected.

One very fun thing about them both was a “What If…?” mode, which basically altered the game play a little (different dialogue, minor level design alteration).  Made the replay value soar quite a bit.

For the curious, this YouTube playlist has Let’s Plays of both of those games.

A minor mention goes out to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, also for the PlayStation.  In one level of the first Spidey game, if you crawl across a billboard that’s advertising this game, Spidey makes a comment along the lines of, “Hey, Tony Hawk.  I skated with that guy.” Since I wasn’t exactly a stupid child, I realized that such a comment might mean something.  I asked around, inquiring of friends and store employees, and found that Spidey was an unlockable character in Pro Skater 2.  Naturally, upon learning this I snapped that up as soon as possible.

I have a confession to make—my love of Spidey trumped my desire to play the game “properly”, so I cheated my tuchus off to unlock him.  When I did, though, I found I enjoyed the game so much I ended up beating it without cheats.  I became a fan of the franchise as a whole, actually.

Digression aside, the next major game for the webbed wonder was Spider-Man: The Movie for the PS2.  Developer Treyarch kept the mechanics similar to previous Spidey games, where he just shot webbing straight up as he swung around, you couldn’t go to the street from the rooftops, and so on.  They did add a lot of things, though my favorite was the second storyline.

If you unlocked Harry Osborn, you could play as him, outfitted in Goblin gear of his own.  His missions were basically the same as Spidey’s, but he had his own story behind them, and of course the dialogue was different.  The different mechanics were the major point of interest.

Then we get to my favorite Spider-Man game to date: Spider-Man 2 for the PS2.  If you’ve read my review you’ll know that I thought it was a great game.  Sure, it had more bugs than an entomologist’s basement, but the completely revamped web-swinging combined with the huge city—it just doesn’t get more fun than that.

Sure, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions was a fine enough game, I suppose, and most versions of it were received decently well, but—there wasn’t much freedom.  The world was tiny, constrictive, and wasn’t really anything more than a three-dimensional beat-’em-up.  It was basically Maximum Carnage minus the (moderately) exploratory levels and depth of story.  Which is to say, it was more a generic “beat people up” game with various Spider-Men shoved into it than anything truly fitting the various web-heads.

To be fair, as I said before, Spider-Man is an insanely difficult character to code a game for.  He can attach himself to any surface, which throws basic gravity code right out the window.  Also, his mode of travel—swinging on lines, whether attached to anchor points or just “upward somewhere”—is without precedent.  He’s not the only character in video games to swing on lines, but he was one of, if not, the first, and he’s certainly the only one who does it so much.  Sticking to everything in sight and swinging on web-lines are what he’s known for, really.

That’s been a large part of the reason why his games—with a few exceptions—haven’t really focused on much but the combat.  It’s also easier, and taking the easier route means you can make a game more cheaply (which means it’s more likely to be made in the first place), easier to debug, and able to be published sooner.

He’s such a difficult character to code a game for, but when they handle him right—or even if the game play isn’t great, if the setting and story “feel” right—his games can be incredibly fun.  Sure, he’s had a stinker now and then, but most franchises have had their share of bad games.  It’s whether the series as a whole is fun and enjoyable that’s what counts.  In Spidey’s case, his incredibly long list of games is generally filled with good ones.

That he’s such a different character is what can bring in more gamers, whether or not they’re Spider-Fans, and even if they haven’t read a single Spidey comic.  He’s different, and when that difference is executed well, he can be enjoyed by gamers of all types and preferences.


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